Evocations of the Sabbats

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Samhain: Return to the Cauldron

by Melanie Fire Salamander

You sit cross-legged on a splintered wooden floor.  To your left, a window, its broken glass jagged, lets in bitter-cold night air.  The only light is yellow flame from a jack o' lantern before you, cut to smile wickedly.  Its orange gourd fangs curl in, beginning to dry out. 

You slide toward it, lift the lid, smell cooked pumpkin; you set the top aside, warm your hands over the candle.  All around you feel spirits, a thick smoke in dark air.  The wind buffets the building, cries at the window; the candle flickers. 

Suddenly, a gust knocks open the door.  The jack o' lantern goes out.  You feel a presence; your eyes adjust, and you see floating in the open doorway a pale wisp of something. 

You stand.  The white smoky form shows clearer.  Just as you become used to it, it speaks.  "Come." 

"But " You have no reason to stay.  But the idea of following this thing scares you.  Is it Death? 

"Come."  The wind sweeps a curl of dust and pebbles over the threshold.  The spirit waits.  You don't feel much personality in it, only implacable patience.  If you don't agree to come, you and it might stare at each other all night. 

"All right," you say. 

You go out, trying to shut the door behind you; the wind blows it open again.  Outside, dead grass bows soughing before the wind.  Ragged pale clouds rush across the sky.  You and the spirit walk a narrow footpath, gravel gone to sandy mud. 

The path climbs to a plateau.  Stars wink from the clouds voyeuristically.  There is no moon. 

After a time, the path begins to go downhill.  Ahead, you see a line of bare tree limbs rising from a rift.  The path suddenly stoops, cuts along the inside of a bank, switchbacking steeply; at the bottom, tree roots hump on muddy ground.  You stumble forward, following the spirit between pale-boled cottonwoods.  Moss festoons bare branches, catches in your clothes and hair. 

You come to a mud flat, the bank of a river.  Black water rushes by. 

A little way along the bank, a rowboat peeling phosphorescent white paint rocks in the water, moored to a stump.  The spirit floats a little beyond it, indicating you should climb in.  You find oars in the boat's bottom, unloop the rope, step in, push off into the river. 

The spirit leads you downstream.  The river runs fast; part of you is petrified you'll fall overboard.  You can't see snags in this dark. 

Then abruptly the spirit flits to the other side.  You have to pull hard to follow it, but you make it across.  You moor the boat to a sapling, follow the spirit along a narrow edge of mud. 

Beside you, the bank slowly rises.  Its mud and scrub turns to a tumble of boulders, then to sheer rock.  Suddenly the cliff turns inward.  A small stream flows out, joining the river; it has hollowed a cave, a narrow, pointed cat-mouth about your height. 

The spirit enters the cave.  You follow, slipping on wet rocks.  When you turn a corner, all around you goes black.  The spirit emits a faint light, enough to follow. 

Then the spirit disappears.  After a bit, when it doesn't return, you feel back along the cave wall, rough and damp.  Behind, you touch a wall of rock. 

Your heart beats loudly in your chest.  You fight down panic.  You search behind you with your hand, but you can't find the way you came.  You must have gotten turned around in the darkness. 

After a few moments, you begin to creep forward. 

You begin to feel and hear in the rock around you a thumping like a giant heart.  Then ahead you see a faint red tinge.  You continue; the light grows stronger. 

You come into a large bowl of cave lit by a fire, twisting and flaring beneath a cauldron high as your waist.  On the cauldron's far side, an old woman stirs with a long ladle.  Her eyes, caught in a welter of wrinkles, flicker up cannily.  The thumping is gone. 

"Hello, ma'am," you say.  You see in the shadows by her feet a big, smooth-furred black dog. 

"Good evening," she says.  Her voice is hoarse, hard to catch.  "Do you know who I am?" 

"I think so." 

"You know this cauldron, don't you?"  Strangely, you think you do.  You nod.  "Are you ready for a bath?" 

You stare at her, eyes wide.  "You don't trust me, do you?  If I didn't have your best interests at heart, I could have left you in the tunnel." 

"Yes, but "

"Or dropped you in the river.  You're very lucky, actually.  Are you going to bathe?" 

A pause.  The dog growls a little under its breath.  "I guess so," you say, thinking, I could already be dead

"Let me empty it first."  Before you can step forward to help, she has caught the cauldron's edge in two hands, tipped it, though it must be heavy lifting for two men.  From the cauldron's mouth pours an iridescent golden wave of light.  It flows upward; you see in it forms, people, animals, trees, vaulting joyously toward a crack in the cave ceiling.  Music sounds, and laughter. 

Then it's gone.  The last wisps of gold disappear, the music dies. 

"Take your clothes off and climb in," she says.  Feeling awkward, you strip.  The dog gets up, comes to sniff your clothing.  You clamber over the cauldron's side, sit down, laying your arms along the cauldron's edge. 

"Lie down," she says.  You curl in fetal position.  The interior of the cauldron is gilded; it seems to radiate light.  All you can see is a golden bulb around you, above you a circle of black cave ceiling.  You hear the old woman moving about, whistling to herself.  "Shut your eyes," she says.  "It will be easier." 

You feel the cauldron begin to fill with warm liquid, thicker than water, syrupy.  It smells heavenly, like honey, or flowers.  It comes up around your body; you turn your head so you can breathe.  Then it covers your face. 

Suddenly you are swimming in a red-lit pool, deep underwater.  You drag yourself upward frantically, afraid your breath will run out.  The red light focuses; you see it pours through a narrow opening, which you swim toward.  Reaching it, you pull yourself up through a cylinder whose sides are warm and slippery.  You emerge into absolute, white light. 

You wake in the shack, naked on the rough floor.  Out the open door glows the rose-edged, pale yellow dawn sky.  In the corner, the jack o' lantern grins. 


Copyright (c) 1995-2009 by Melanie Fire Salamander

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